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Three things I learned about disruptive innovation as an Uber driver

By Ted Graham | September 17, 2015

When people talk about disruption they’re usually referring to small, startups companies out to change the world. But change, often fundamental change, is also taking place inside large, well-established corporations.

I think of myself as an entrepreneur within a very large company. While the company I work for has grown to include 200,000 people in 155 territories, it strives to remain nimble, continuously innovating to stay relevant in fast-changing world. Part of my role as an Innovation Leader, is to get out of my comfort zone – and outside of the company – to really understand these disruptive innovations and figure out how to apply them in our own context. That’s how I became a driver with ride-sharing service Uber in downtown Toronto. For those not yet familiar, Uber is the GPS-enabled smartphone service that matches people looking for a lift with drivers who use their own cars. Add in automatic payments and charge 40% less than the going rate and you’ve got a taxi industry nightmare that has reached an astronomical valuation of $51B. 

Uber is part of what’s being called the sharing economy, a phenomenon that has wide reaching implications well beyond the taxi business. Uber and other companies (AirBnB) should serve as a warning to all industry that complacence isn’t an option.

My own industry, professional services, is also vulnerable. As technology automates traditional competencies, we, like every forward thinking organization must continually think beyond what work looks like today to find new ways of creating value in the future.

Over my 12 months as an occasional Uber driver, I learned three important things about innovation:

1. Form strong partnerships
Spend the same kind of energy and resources on recruiting your partners as you do on your customers. For Uber, this meant adopting a “surge pricing” model, where rates are raised during busy periods to lure more drivers onto the road to meet demand. For other organizations this concept might mean incentivizing employees or creating a flexible pay plan that attracts more people at a time when they’re needed most.

2. Feedback with consequences.
Just as Uber drivers are reviewed by their passengers, Uber passengers are rated by Uber drivers. Now, both passenger and driver have a choice in the service. For Uber, mutual respect has led to efficiency. For other organizations, the same idea applies. Some customers may not be worth the effort. Building a great business may mean firing a few bad clients. 

3. Balancing risk and reward.
Myriad rules and regulations, traditional loyalties and an entrenched sense of entitlement  surround and protect most of what we’ve become used to. Uber drivers experienced this as a gauntlet of abuse, insurance fees and municipal by-laws. But the rewards made it worth it: A cheaper and more convenient service, a drop in drunk driving rates, better use of cars that would otherwise sit idle, plus reduced emissions and congestion from taking individual drivers off the road. To help foster and implement other ideas that will benefit us all, groups of businesses and government regulators are joining together and collaboratively working through the barriers that limit or stifle innovation.
 
The vast majority of us are not employed in hot startups, but we can all make a difference and embrace innovation at some level. From the mail room to the corner office, these intrapreneurs are working to piece together great ideas from inside and outside of their organizations, and implementing on a scale that can have a huge impact.

Let’s take the wheel and be the driver.

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